When under-23 rider Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) landed on the podium last weekend at Belgium's Elite National Cyclo-Cross Championships, contested on a highly technical course, fans were quick to tip him off as the next "Sven Nys" - arguably the best technical rider in the peloton.
His authoritative performance in the elite category on technical terrain was not his first this season. Meeusen has twice placed second to Nys in Scheldecross and Middelkerke. He also finished fourth in Tervuren earlier this month in a sprint over World Champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus.)
At 21 years of age, Meeusen still competes in the under-23 category at all top international events such as World Cups and World Championships, but since earning his professional contract last season, he rides with the elites at National-level events.
When asked about his recent jump in performance, he told Cyclingnews, "Last year I had a lot of problems with illness and everything going wrong. I had no trainer so I worked hard but not right. Starting this year, I have a trainer named Jos Henderieckx. I talk with him every day and he tells me what to do. I feel really happy with him. The progression that I am making is because of him."
He is also quick to credit mountain bike racing. "I always need motivation in the summer to do the hard work. I like road racing but I think it's boring to do it the whole summer. So for me, the mountain bike is perfect for that - I like more the technical aspect of races. It's good preparation for cyclo-cross."
Henderieckx wholeheartedly approves, telling Meeusen, "If you like it, you have to do it." His talent clearly crosses over to the mountain bike as he is Belgium's under-23 Champion. Similar to Nys, Meeusen ended his mountain bike season in Australia at World Championships. He placed 13th in the under-23 category.
While he is really excited by the recent attention he has received, he is quick to add, "The cross races where I was second were not big ones like GVA or Superprestige. Even so, I was happy with the results. Regarding Nationals, it's good to have admiration from everybody in Belgium and it's really special for a U-23 to be on the podium."
Once he graduates to the elite category full time next season he has an idea of what to expect. "It's a totally different race for me when I ride with U-23. I am usually top favorite and everybody in the race looks to me to make the race. But with the elites, I can go on a wheel and say, "yeah, I'm only a U-23 rider" so I can stay in wheels and things like that. I don't have much pressure so it's easier to ride for a good place. But next year when I have to ride every week with the elites it will be not so easy I think," explains Meeusen.
As for World Championships in Tabor in two weeks, Meeusen is glad to remain in the under-23 category one more time. "The [Belgian] national pro level is high but at Worlds there are so many more international people that it will be a much higher level. Guys like [Francis] Mourey and Styby [teammate Zdenek Stybar] will be there," says Meeusen.
With nervous laughter he adds, "I am not so sure that I'm going to win the U-23 title. I hope I will be on the podium. I will work hard and I will try to win but now in Belgium a lot of people expect that I go win the World Championships, but it's pretty hard."
As for his competition, he names Cristian Cominelli of Italy, Marek Konwa of Poland, and teammates Kacper and Pawel Szczepaniak of Poland, and Robert Gavenda of Slovakia.
In response to his newly earned label of "The Next Sven Nys," Meeusen says, "Huh! I don't know. I didn't hear it but I was already happy that Nys and [Teammate Bart] Wellens called my name before the National Championships as a favorite for the podium. But the next Sven Nys? I don't know. He is already 7 times Belgian Champion and I don't know how many times he won the Superprestige, GVA and World Cup. Huh. He is so big! I don't think I'm as good as him."
Maybe not at the moment, but at 21 he has some time to get there.